Susan Bickley / Andrew Kennedy / Ailish Tynan / Iain Burnside

On Buying a Horse: The Songs of Judith Weir

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The title of this collection of vocal music by Scottish composer Judith Weir refers only to the opening track, a song setting a non-animal-rights-friendly folk text about how to judge a horse for purchase ("four white feet and a white nose/take off his hide and feed him to the crows"). Yet the song gives a good introduction to the artistry shown by both composer and performers in this delightful group of contemporary songs. Weir often draws on traditional (and folk-ish) texts, from her native Scotland, from Spain, and from elsewhere. ("I have no idea why one singer ends up with Chinese philosophy whilst another has to sing a Serbian song about trousers," she wrote.) She writes in a loosely tonal idiom with accompanimental figures that rely on repetition yet carry on lives of their own, apart from the vocal line. And she favors quizzical texts, veering between rough humor and profound sadness, which she quite expertly balances with music that has a knack for leaving the listener hanging. Some of the shorter songs here would work well on recitals for student singers, but there is also one fearsome showpiece: King Harald's Saga is an unaccompanied 15-minute epic featuring 10 parts -- all of them sung (or spoken) by soprano Ailish Tynan. That includes spoken narration and choral parts ("the Norwegian army"). The singer has to do the vocal equivalent of quick costume changes without missing a beat -- the work relies on a fast pace in its mixture of humor and gruesome detail (the faux-Nordic-epic text is Weir's own), all making quite a pointed commentary on the folly of war, and the listener has to be kept in a state of surprise as to which personality is going to come next. Tynan executes this technical and dramatic challenge superbly, and the disc as a whole is a bracing delight for any lover of art song.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 02:26 Amazon
2 05:15 Amazon
Songs from the Exotic, for soprano & piano
3 01:42 Amazon
4 03:06 Amazon
5 02:24 Amazon
6 02:03 Amazon
Scotch Minstrelsy, Songs (5) for voice & piano
7 03:57 Amazon
8 02:27
9 02:03 Amazon
10 03:04 Amazon
11 01:55 Amazon
The Voice of Desire, for voice & piano
12 04:05 Amazon
13 02:48 Amazon
14 03:19 Amazon
15 01:26 Amazon
A Spanish Liederbooklet, for voice & piano
16 04:07 Amazon
17 02:34 Amazon
18 02:09 Amazon
King Harald's Saga, opera for unaccompanied soprano
19 04:19 Amazon
20 03:22
21 04:35 Amazon
22 01:30 Amazon
23 03:15 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick